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Review: As Bright As Heaven

I’m resolving to read all of my Book of the Month books as I receive them this year, and also eliminating my little backlog from last year. My January BOTM selection was Susan Meissner’s As Bright As Heaven, a historical fiction novel that’s set to be published in early February.

asbrightasheavenAbout the book: The Bright family (mother, father, and three daughters) is moving to Philadelphia to take over Uncle Fred’s funeral home business. They’re still grieving the death of the son’s only family, a boy who lived to six months before a congenital heart defect killed him. In 1918, there aren’t doctors to cure what Henry has, at least not in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. So they’re moving to Philadephia for a new start, for a new perspective on death, and a chance at a better life. But trouble finds them in Phildelphia too, when the Spanish Influenza outbreak brings customers and illness to their door. The Brights must find a way to carry on after the disease rips their lives apart.

“I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I’m strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn’t it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.”

As Bright as Heaven was a bit too slow and sentimental for my taste. You can probably even see in the quotes I’m including here that there’s something kind of… airy about the writing. It uses a rambling, circuitous way of getting to the point. There’s also an excruciating amount of detail; some detail adds to the atmospheric quality of the book, but so many times I found myself reading about things like the color of tiles on the kitchen floor or a which park the children like to visit and what they like to do there didn’t have any bearing on the story or add to my sense of the time period. Details like that made the book seem to go on and on while I sifted through the story for the important parts.

“If people don’t do their part to stop the spread of evil when they’re asked to, it just gets stronger and then no one can stop it.”

Perhaps most importantly, I’d like to talk about the Spanish Influenza. This is the root of the book’s plot and emotion, and it comes up quickly in the synopsis. And yet only a third of the book takes place during the Spanish flu epidemic. I thought it seemed like a short section, so when I finished reading I went back to check: from the first page of the flu’s appearance to the page that says “the flu is finally leaving” is only 32% of the novel, and there’s more going on in that span than the flu alone. Of course, World War I is ongoing at the time (1918) , and the narration alternates between four perspectives: the mother and three daughters of the Bright family, who each have their own set of intrigues. I was disappointed that the most interesting part of the book, the historical part that most awoke my sense of awe and compassion, the part that convinced me to read this book in the first place, ended so quickly. That’s not how the Spanish Influenza epidemic would’ve seemed to characters living at this time.

“Death is not our foe. There is no foe. There is only the stunningly fragile human body, a holy creation capable of loving with such astonishing strength but which is weak to the curses of a fallen world. It is the frailty of flesh and blood that causes us to succumb to forces greater than ourselves. We are like butterflies, delicate and wonderful, here on earth for only a brilliant moment and then away we fly. Death is appointed merely to close to the door to our suffering and open with the gate to Paradise.”

Can you see what I mean, about the writing? It’s like a marshmallow, big and beautiful and fluffy, but so lightweight. It’s so sentimental, and I also have a hard time imagining anyone who’s dying of the Spanish flu seeing death as something beautiful. Perhaps it’s just my personal preference; I know I prefer books that tackle hard or devastating topics to do so with a light hand, to provide only the facts and let the reader be the judge of how terrible an event was by seeing how it affects the characters.

And speaking of the characters: their fates are the biggest pull for the reader throughout this novel. Especially after the flu has passed, there’s nothing to read for other than to wonder what will happen to the Bright family next. Unfortunately, I found their fates entirely too predictable for that to be a compelling mystery. In the end, it was pleasing on some level to see my guesses proved correct, even if I was a little impatient about getting there. As Bright as Heaven is the sort of book that ties all its loose ends and gives the reader the happy ending, even if it takes some traumatic detours along the way.

“There’s always a way to make something better, even if it means sweeping up the broken pieces and starting all over. That’s how we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we’re still alive.”

But let’s end with some merits: the fact that the Brights are living in and operating a funeral home at the time of the Spanish flu epidemic gives the reader an interesting inside perspective on the severity of the outbreak and the horrors that even the survivors experienced. It’s also interesting to see a bit of the home perspective of the WWI effort, and the difficulty some soldiers experienced with resuming their lives afterward. And of course, with all of its superfluous details, As Bright as Heaven is very atmospheric, which is always a plus in historical fiction.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was debating between 2 and 3 stars, to be honest. If I were a person who used half stars (personally I’d rather just force myself to choose), I would’ve gone with a 2.5. The part about the Spanish flu was fascinating, and while I didn’t like the writing style I knew that was only a personal preference rather than a true fault in the writing. Sentimentality is just too sickly sweet for my liking. Give me grit. I probably won’t ever reread this book, or pick up anything else from this author, but I am more interested in the Spanish flu now so it wasn’t a total loss.

Further recommendations:

  1.  If you’re interested in underappreciated facets of history, try Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea, a YA historical fiction about a little-known naval disaster during WWII.
  2. I also encourage you to pick up my favorite historical fiction novel, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a book about the aftermath of war in Afghanistan.
  3. And if you want something atmospheric and heart-wrenching but faster paced, try Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, a Gilded Age historical fiction mystery involving a carnival disaster, a misplaced baby, an asylum, and more.

Are you a Book of the Month member? Which book did you pick in January and what did you think of it?


The Literary Elephant



Review: It

I read Stephen King’s It! It currently stands as the longest book I’ve ever read, ringing in at 1,153 pages. I spent four weeks buddy reading this book, about 250-300 pages per week between the other books I read this month, ending each week with a phone chat with my buddy about the section we’d just read. It was a great way to make it through what might otherwise have seemed a very daunting book, and thus I ended up really loving not only the buddy read experience but the entire long novel.

it2About the book: Something is haunting Derry. Only the kids seem to be able to see It, although they don’t all see the same thing, and some of the grownups know It’s there. But no one seems to understand what It is, or why it’s murdering kids. In 1958, the Losers Club bands together, united by their shared experiences as victims of local bully Henry Bowers and the terrifying supernatural force they call It. Once they start talking about their frightening experiences with Pennywise the clown (in Its various forms) they start piecing together truths about Derry’s dark nature that no one else seems to understand– or at least admits out loud. One of the Losers has lost a sibling to Pennywise’s reign of terror, and won’t let that stand– the group dedicates their summer to killing It; and just in case, they swear to come back to Derry as adults and try again if It manages to survive and return.

“And once dreams became real, they escaped the power of the dreamer and became their own deadly things, capable of independent action.”

Of course, as with every Stephen King novel (that I’ve read so far, anyway), the writing is superb. King always seems to know which details to share to breathe life into his characters and keep the plot rolling. Yes, It is long. It’s really long (and thus my review is also a bit longer than usual). But there weren’t aspects of this book that felt superfluous like long books run the risk of including. Every word has its place, and they’re good words. It is easy to read, in the sense that it’s not full of unknown words or obscure concepts, and yet he ties things together in eye-opening ways. Despite its supernatural elements, It is full of relatable ideas about human nature, about relationships and emotions that many readers are familiar with. No one writes like King.

It covers two main timelines, a summer in 1958 and another in 1985. The book goes back and forth between the two times, sometimes switching chapters between the two right in the middle of a sentence that meshes with another sentence fragment from the other time. But both times move forward chronologically, the switches are clearly labelled, and there’s such an age difference for the Losers between ’58 and ’85 that it’s easy to keep track of which time you’re reading about. There are also vignettes of Pennywise’s deadly mischief in other years, but again these are clearly labelled and woven fittingly into the story.

In addition to the range of years, the reader is also given close third-person perspectives of each of the seven main characters, as well as a few brief glimpses into Pennywise’s psyche and several of the other children outside of the Losers Club. But again, these sections are distinct, though they aren’t always labelled. Each character is impressively unique, and at the first mention of one of their names the reader knows exactly which character they’re following.

These formatting details alone make the length of the book evident: to follow so many characters closely over a 27-year time span with extra bits thrown in to widen the story, It covers a huge scope of plot, and it does so at a perfect pace– slow enough for the reader to take in every important detail, but fast enough that the reader is never bogged down with a ton of boring backstory. The 1,153 pages are necessary– you just need to be interested in a really big story if you’re thinking about attempting it.

I do want to mention some not-as-stellar aspects of this particular King novel, however. While I didn’t find any of this book truly scary, I would say It is a book for more mature audiences. There are some creepy clown scenes as well as other horror scenes that may potentially be frightening. In addition, there are a lot of slurs and insults aimed at the Losers. The Losers are: an asthmatic, an African American, a Jew, an overweight boy, a stutterer, a myopic goof (class clown type), and a girl. There are also some gay characters. All of these people are made fun of, bullied, called every inappropriate name that applies, etc. Even amongst themselves they joke about the things that make them “losers.” This is done as tastefully as possible (as far as such a thing can be done tastefully): the Losers Club is a self-proclaimed title, and they’re fully accepting of each other inside the group. The narration makes it clear that the slurs and such are the opinions of the small-minded, the real losers; the Losers Club is actually pretty charming and awesome. I would’ve read 1,000+ pages about them even without Pennywise the supernatural clown to keep the plot rolling.

“Maybe, he thought, there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends– maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for, too, if that’s what has to be.”

But then there are the weird sexual moments. These actually bothered me more than any of the racist/homophobic/misogynistic/etc. comments and the murders of small children. Some of the murders are disturbing, but generally their supernatural nature makes them seem more fictional while the sexual moments seem very much more real. I don’t want to give a list of the weird sexual things that happen, but they’re there. It’s not even always a sex scene, per se, it’s just some normal childhood moment that ends up oddly charged. Sex comes into this novel much more frequently than seems necessary. I almost took a star off my rating for these moments, but in the end I liked the rest of the content enough to overlook these bizarre and uncomfortable moments. There’s one scene toward the end of the book when the Losers Club is still a group of 11 year-olds that particularly bothered me.

For anyone who’s read the book (I plan to watch both the old miniseries and the new movie in the near future but I haven’t yet), I’ll say this: I preferred the childhood timeline to the adult one, except for the Ritual of Chud scenes. Ben was my favorite character throughout, though I liked the entire Losers Club, especially as children. The reunion scene was my favorite adult Losers Club section. My favorite scene of the whole book is the phone call to Stan and his wife’s subsequent discovery. The end of the novel was definitely not what I expected (which is to say It was not what I expected) and I would’ve rated the book lower for that “final battle” scene if the adult version of the Ritual of Chud hadn’t fulfilled my expectations more where the child version failed (seriously what were the rest of them doing as kids while Bill was in that Other Space?)

” ‘We’re dead, but sometimes we clown around a little, Stanley.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a stellar experience reading this book, even with a few scenes that made me uncomfortable. I knew going in that there was a chance It would be uncomfortable to read at times, although in the end it wasn’t Pennywise that creeped me out. I am so excited to watch the film versions of this book, and to read more Stephen King novels. The size of his novels can be daunting, but they’re definitely worth the time in the end.

Further recommendations:

  1. More Stephen King, obviously. I couldn’t decide between my favorites, so here’s a few: If you like fictional politics and can suspend your disbelief, try The Dead Zone. If you like a historical twist and a character-driven plot (less sci-fi), go for 11/22/63. If you want another tie to Derry and a potential scare, go for Bag of Bones. And if you’ve read a bunch of Stephen King but haven’t yet read his memoir, definitely pick up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft because he writes about his own early life like he writes his fictional characters and it is everything.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel? I’ve decided I want to read them all (I’ve read twelve), but I’m trying to prioritize some of the best ones and I’ll take all opinions!


The Literary Elephant

Review: Ugly Love

I read Hoover’s It Ends With Us a little over a year ago. I liked what it was trying to do, but wasn’t thrilled with the ways it went about it. But it did have some good morals, was fun to read, and made me think I should try another of Colleen Hoover’s romance novels before giving up. At the very least, romance novels are occasionally a nice guilty-pleasure read for me. From her oeuvre, I chose Ugly Love.

uglyloveAbout the book: Tate moves into her brother’s apartment in Seattle because the empty room allows for a convenient commute to her nursing job. She isn’t intending to stay forever, but she gets along well with her pilot brother and a few months with him seems like a good choice. While she’s there, she meets one of her brother’s pilot friends, Miles. He’s drunk and desperate and in need of assistance. Their reintroduction in the morning when he’s sobered up a bit doesn’t go much better. But he is attractive, and she sees something in him that first night, a vulnerability that he’s extremely careful never to show when he’s in control of himself. So even when he makes it clear that he’s not interested in talking about the past or the future or love, that he’s only looking for a physical relationship, she agrees, hoping she’ll see that real, raw, deeper part of him again eventually. He’s highly motivated to make sure that doesn’t happen, which seems to doom their relationship from the start.

“I don’t see how love could get ugly enough for a person to just shut himself off from it completely.”

First, let’s look at the formatting. Many of Miles’ POV sections, which mostly focus on his traumatic past, are written with center alignment. Usually I appreciate unusual formats, but this simply had no purpose. I believe it was intended to make some of his story seem more poetic, but Miles is a pilot, not a poet. All of the books on his stuffed-full shelves are aerodynamic texts. And present-day Miles is still pretty bitter about the events unfolding in those past sections, not poetic.

What the formatting does accomplish however, is emphasis. This has more to do with spacing and sentence structure than the central alignment, and it’s especially noticeable in Tate’s POV chapters. There’s a lot of emphasis to be found in the parts that are probably supposed to be romantic. But spacing does not make up for the fact that the narration is constantly telling rather than showing in Ugly Love.

And what is it telling? A cute sentence Miles speaks is repeated in Tate’s head word. by. word. as the phrase becomes her new favorite sentence. Someone blushes and it’s mentally gushed over for an entire paragraph. “His fingertip touched my knee. OMG HE TOUCHED. MY. KNEE.” These are things that any reader can generally pick up on without being told three times in various ways that something significant is happening. An interested reader can identify a cute bit of dialogue without being told it’s there. He/she can identify a blush and recognize what it signifies. And if these cues are being given appropriately, we will be just as interested as the protagonist that the tiniest bit of the love interest’s skin is casually touching her knee. A tighter round of editing might have served better than the emphatic use of spacing, central alignment, and italics. So many italics.

“You look up there and think, I wish I was up there. But you’re not. Ugly love becomes you. Consumes you. Makes you hate it all. Makes you realize that all the beautiful parts aren’t even worth it. Without the beautiful, you’ll never risk feeling this. You’ll never risk feeling the ugly.”

But even the worst formatting, if a story has good bones, can be overlooked. And yet I could not quite bring myself to appreciate Ugly Love‘s bones. Tate is made to seem commendable for sticking with Miles while he struggles with his past. But sticking with him is pretty harmful to Tate from the start, worse as the novel wears on, and awful toward the end. There is a time she thinks “he RUINED me,” and stays with him. There is an incident when kissing is compared to killing. Miles is never physically or even intentionally abusive, but he’s constantly hurting Tate, and I didn’t think it commendable to show readers that staying in those situations is good for the person who’s constantly being hurt and coming back for more. But let’s skip to the big question of the novel: Are the ugliest parts of love worth the beautiful parts? An old question. One that’s already been answered time and time again, in better ways. Who doesn’t know “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” The romance is obvious before one even cracks open the book– but even the themes are predictable.

Where there’s predictability, there’s boredom. I didn’t need 100+ pages of proof that Miles had been in love before his romantic tragedy. That’s a no-brainer. That’s what makes his disaster disastrous. The tragedy itself has good shock value, but I believe I would’ve had the same reaction to reading it without all the backstory of how they’d gotten there. Even just hearing Miles say it in present day would’ve been as powerful as reading it directly from his past. Hoover gives point 1, dangles point 2, and then with 2 in sight she takes the reader on a scenic trip to 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. There could’ve been a bit more mystery to the book, a bit more subtlety.

Instead, there’s insta-love. My problem with insta-love isn’t that I don’t agree with the possibility of love at first sight, it’s when the initial attraction never becomes more than that superficial first layer of physical attraction. And after finishing Ugly Love, I still can’t tell you what either Tate or Miles might have found lovable about the other. It’s just relentless physical attraction. Where’s the love?

Also there are a handful of details that seem to be pulled directly from Fifty Shades, which is unfortunate.

My reaction: 2 of 5 stars. Not the worst book I’ve ever read. It just wasn’t right for me, apparently. I had a lot of eye-rolling moments, but I did also laugh twice. It’s a romance, which is what Ugly Love purports to be, so it is successful in that.  I just wish there had been more focus on provocative and worthwhile content than on distracting formatting and familiar sentiments. I still feel like maybe in one of her novels Hoover will get just the right balance of unique and interesting story with the proper, powerful narration it deserves. But I’m not in a hurry to comb through the rest of her books looking for the one that will finally hit that mark.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re serious about picking up a Hoover book and haven’t already tried It Ends With Us, I recommend that one. While parts of It Ends With Us seemed preachy to me, there were more main characters and deeper questions, morals I wanted to hang on to longer. This one deals with spousal abuse and homelessness, and the epistolary formatting for part of the story is reasonably explained. It’s not so predictable.
  2. Although I would say Hoover’s books would be considered Adult romance, or maybe New Adult at lowest, I’m going to suggest Paper Princess by Erin Watt if you want a romance that really has the power to surprise. Paper Princess, a romance in the YA age range, was also a guilty pleasure for me, but I didn’t have nearly as many problems with it. The characters are teens, but it’s just as explicit as an adult romance. It’s gritty and weird and a little less obvious– there’s a whole family of hot boys, and it took me longer than I want to admit to figure out which one of them was the love interest. They’re interesting people, at the very least.

I’m sorry to have so many complaints about one book and I want to end on a good note: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is indeed a beautiful sentiment.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Good Daughter

I’ve been vaguely wanting to try one of Karin Slaughter’s books for a few months now, so when I saw her newest release, The Good Daughter, on the New Books shelf at my local library, I picked it up on a whim even though Spooky Books Month (aka October) has passed.

thegooddaughterAbout the book: When Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte (Charlie) were young, their lives were ripped apart. Two men in ski masks with a debt to settle came to their door, looking to cause some trouble with their father, Rusty Quinn, hated lawyer and protector of the hideously guilty. Rusty wasn’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop the bad men from taking out their anger on the rest of the family. Twenty-eight years later, the two Culpepper men that Charlie identified as the culprits are 1) dead, and 2) on death row. But a school shooting at the local middle school brings the remnants of Charlie’s family back together, and a single, unexpected thread ties this shooting to the horrors of Charlie’s past. In both cases, the truth seems obvious from the start, but the truth will turn out to be messier than anyone expected.

“You could only ever see a thing when you were standing outside of it.”

This book is not a thriller. It’s barely a mystery. You might call it horror, if heinous fictional crimes horrify you. At it’s core, this novel is a sort of extreme family drama, an exploration of unusual characters and the rough sides of their lives. It’s a slow-burn crime novel for the reader who’s more interested in the madmen and their survivors than in the endless twists and turns of a fast-paced plot. The Good Daughter is a long novel, and it focuses primarily on the gray area of morality.

“The hairs on the back of her neck rose up. She always felt this way when she came into the Holler. It wasn’t only the sense of not belonging, but the knowledge that the wrong turn, the wrong Culpepper, and physical danger would no longer be an abstract concept.”

Because the novel is so character-driven, it relies on intrigue rather than suspense to propel the reader through the story, and the ease with which the reader keeps turning pages depends on his/her interest in the main characters– the Quinn family members. This made the book a little harder for me to work through because I didn’t like Charlie. You know those characters in horror movies who run in the wrong direction and then fall down a lot for no apparent reason? And when they finally get out of the danger zone they stupidly run back in? That’s what Charlie’s like. I know fiction is boring if nobody ever does what they’re not supposed to, but I just can’t like a character who makes the wrong choice every time, knows it’s wrong, and can’t offer any explanation other than “I had to.” The secrets of Charlie’s past do eventually shed some light on her recent behavior, and there were certainly moments when I felt utterly pitiful about the tragedies of her childhood, but it was never quite enough to reconcile me to the complete ridiculousness of some of her actions.

But the plot is engaging, and the writing is engaging. Even before it’s clear what the mystery is, the reader feels the pull to know more because it’s clear something isn’t right, even if we’re not sure how it’ll play out. The blurred line between “good” and “bad” makes everyone in the novel infinitely more interesting; it’s so hard to know who to trust, and which characters are not as they first appear. Legality and morality do not go hand in hand. The good guys are corrupt, the bad guys walk free, and Rusty stands in the middle, forgiving everyone and confusing the reader’s sense of right and wrong.

“A trial is nothing but a competition to tell the best story. Whoever sways the jury wins the trial.”

The twenty-eight years between The Good Daughter‘s key crimes allow for an even richer sense of characterization. We see some people grow and change, we learn things about the people that are gone that weren’t revealed earlier, and we see a progression of motives. Almost every character undergoes significant alteration in the course of the novel, which gives this book its sense of realness and keeps the reader going even when the plot stalls. Again, let me point out that this is a book you read for the characters, because the mystery wrapped up in their lives is only something to be stumbled upon as the subjects piece themselves back together.

“Their adult selves might very well be strangers, but there were certain things that age, no matter how cunning, could not wear away.”

On a final note, there are a lot of repetitions in this book– repeated words and phrases, whole passages lifted from one chapter and planted in another. In my opinion, there’s value in showing the same scene from multiple perspectives when each telling shares something new. But there’s also a point, especially in a book I’m reading for the first time, when I get tired of feeling like I’m already rereading before I’ve even reached the end of the novel. The sort of parallels and contrasts that become apparent in scenes that require repetitions are most interesting to the readers who will notice a repeated scene with only a couple of key words to go on. The plethora of regurgitated words in this book feel like an insult; the author does not trust the reader to make connections, and is trying to do too much of the reader’s work instead of trusting the reader to make the necessary connections. This is the biggest flaw of The Good Daughter, and is especially noticeable because it’s the only real problem with the writing style. Slaughter has a wonderful sense of detail, always sharing just the right things to offer insight into character and hiding the clues that’ll come back later with just enough misdirection. The crimes she describes and the ways they fit together are completely engaging and virtually unforgettable. The only issue with the language is that the repetitions cause striking descriptions to become stale after frequent use.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. One of the big reveals I guessed, but one I missed completely. In the end, I know that the details that will stick with me from this novel are the secrets that will take the fun out of a reread. Other than the repetitions though, I did like Slaughter’s writing, so I think I’ll try again with another of her novels and hope that it’ll be an even better experience.

Further recommendations:

  1. Gillian Flynn writes great suspense novels with The Good Daughter‘s sort of horrifying grit. I suggest Sharp Objects or Dark Places, especially if you appreciate Slaughter’s characterization of Charlie. These are novels that are both character-driven and fast-paced, with suspenseful plots on the surface and a depth of more challenging themes and developments running beneath.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water is a great choice of character-driven mystery for the serious crime reader who’s more interested in intricate weavings of character history and motives than fast-paced twists and reveals. This is a book for the reader of unlikable characters and the stickiness of truth and power.
  3. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware is another slow-burn mystery that’s more insightful than frightening. It also features two related crimes, one from years past that is dredged up by a recent catastrophe. This one is also very atmospheric.

What’s next: I’m just starting Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s been a busy month for me so far, which means my reading has been slower than usual, but I think it’ll pick up now as the holiday season approaches. All I know about The Bone Season so far is that it’s a fantasy novel at the beginning of an ongoing series, and it will fulfill a slot in my reading challenge. I’ve heard good things about the world-building, so I hope it will surprise me with its greatness. I need a great, quick book to get me back in the swing of things.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.

About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two theclockworkdynastyavtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.

“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”

The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.

“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”

“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”

Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.

“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”

This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.

“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
  2. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.

What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.

What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?


The Literary Elephant